In my last entry I wrote about pain being a fact of life. Everyone has pain from injuries or illnesses or just the process of living. We all have scars from falling off our bikes or out of a tree or from holding a firecracker a second too long. Between 7 knee surgeries, 6 back surgeries, and 2 hand surgeries I am covered in scars. We wear our scars as reminders of a time when pain came to us. Our scars also tell a story to others, letting them know that we have endured pain and have come back from it. Our scars are a part of who we are and where we have been and what we have done.
But what about the pain that leaves no scar? What about the time when we feel a pain far beyond a scraped knee or even a broken bone? There are those around us bearing unimaginable emotional scars, but because these scars reside on their hearts and minds we don’t know that part of their story. We don’t know that they have endured something that we hope is never thrust on us.
A close friend and his wife live in a beautiful neighborhood; his is one of those streets that could be in a movie. It is lined with large trees and it is a block away from an elementary school, so there are always little kids on their bikes followed closely by attentive moms. It is the type of neighborhood where you'd imagine most homes have a pool and envision kids running from one home to the next with their towel over their shoulder. It is a great neighborhood that a lot of people would hope to live in someday. It would be easy to think that everyone in that neighborhood and on that block has it easy and is truly blessed. But those trees and pools and jogging moms and swimming kids do not tell the whole story. They do not let you see the real scars.
This friend sent out an e-mail earlier this week asking us to pray for his neighbors because their 8 year old had fallen sick earlier in the week... got a little better... and then he passed away. It was that sudden; it happened that fast.
♦ How do you process that?♦
♦ How does a healthy 8-year-old suddenly no longer yell to his friendly neighbor cleaning the pool over the fence? ♦
♦ How does life leave one so young? ♦
♦ How does that family live with that scar? ♦
...And how do we help?
I spent many years in school to become a psychologist. I did all the practicums and research and counseling and clinical rotations. I have helped people bounce back from injuries and I have helped people whose mind is scarred learn how to cope again. I have done all the training necessary to be a healer of emotional scars. But I don’t have answers for people who ask how they deal with the scar of losing someone so young and so alive. I know words that will provide comfort and I know how to help a grieving person compartmentalize and understand the grief. But I don’t have an answer for the question of why. I don’t have an answer for the scar that will always be on their hearts; even when those of us who cannot see that scar move on.
So what do we do? How do we help? What do we say?
♦ Let’s start with the first question, “What do we do?” ♦
The answer to this one is fairly straightforward – do something. When someone is hurt, when their world has not only been turned upside down but has been permanently redefined, they will need to understand that there are people around them that can help them cope with the day to day tediousness of life as they try to cope with this sudden change. This sounds simple, but for many people the natural inclination is to avoid involvement and avoid putting themselves into the emotional whirlwind of loss. It is easy to rationalize that family and close friends will be there so the most compassionate thing to do is to keep your distance. That’s not compassionate. That’s avoidance.
You do something because there will come a time when it matters.
In the early days of loss the family is likely surrounded by loved ones and close friends, but soon they too must go back to their lives. And there will come a quiet time when those who are still living with the loss will suddenly feel very alone and very vulnerable... and then they will see a card or remember a meal or think back to a hug... and then they will recall that they are not alone. We all need to feel connected to life, but when it is taken from someone too soon then those who are left behind need the rest of us to help keep them grounded in hope and the prospect of a future when the grief seems unbearable. Providing a meal, sending a note, working up the courage to stop by and let them know you are there may not be fully appreciated in that moment, but there will come a time when it will matter. There will come a time when that act is a tether back to the hope of life. Do something because those who are hurting will need those "somethings" when loss deafens the sound of hope.
♦ The second question often asked is similar to the first, “How do we help?” ♦
This one is tricky, because it really depends on your relationship to the person who is grieving. If it is someone close, then your boundaries of aid and assistant should be as liberal as you can allow them to be. It is ok to clean their home or ask if you can help make sure their bills are sent on time or plan a menu for the coming week. Those tedious demands of life can easily become a nuisance to someone who is grieving, and the frailty of the grieving mind can let those tedious life details slip by. Then, at some point in the not to distant future, the fact that those details went unchecked and unattended will create a stress. And stress can be a trigger to emotional responses that at any other time would seem disproportional. But when the soul is raw from grief, the mind often times has a difficulty with perspective.
If you are not close to the grieving family, make sure you offer to help- -realizing they probably will not take you up on the offer-- and then do something that is helpful. A meal or even a dessert is helpful. Collecting newspapers and mail is helpful. If you are mowing your yard then mow theirs. Help, but do it in a way that is nonintrusive. Do it so that at some point in the near future they won’t have to mow the yard or fix a meal or collect their newspapers. Your actions, even if anonymous, will provide a moment of happiness and a moment of peace and a moment of comfort and sometimes those simple moments are what keeps us tethered to the hope that things can get better.
♦ The last question I am often asked is the hardest, “What do we say?” ♦
What words can be sufficient for a mom or a dad or a grandmother or grandfather who has just lost a part of their life? What words can salve a pain that will leave a scar that will never truly heal? What words matter to someone who is hurting? Believe it or not, the words are simple... but they are so hard to say.
When someone has suffered a loss that seems unimaginable. When parents go from watching their little boy playing soccer one week... to trying to figure out how to breathe again because he is gone the next, what can you say? Tell them that you are there when they need you. Tell them that you will be a shoulder to cry on or ear to listen. Tell them that if they need something you want the privilege of helping.
Don’t tell them you understand or that things will get better.
Don’t affirm for them that you cannot imagine the pain they are feeling.
Don’t give them words that trivialize or over-emphasize what they are going through.
Instead, be that tether to the life beyond pain.
Be the voice of someone who will be there when the time comes for need. Hearing that you are there for them is much more comforting than trying to convince them that things will get better. That is a conclusion that they will have to come to on their own and it will happen in their own time.
What do you do? What do you say? How do you help?
The answer to all of these is simple – be there. Be there in support. Be there in assistance. Be there in word and deed. Just be there.
I cannot imagine losing a child. I cannot imagine the pain of losing someone so close. I pray that is a life lesson I never have to learn. But for those who do, they need the rest of us to be there.
One last thing: that ideal neighborhood on that tree-lined street, with those moms and dads and their kids, will never be the same. But thanks to good-hearted people like my close friend and his wife, that family dealing with the loss of their son knows that someone is there. They know there is a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen. They know there is an extra bed for close family friends who will be coming into town to lay a young child to rest. They know when everyone leaves and when the day comes when silence is deafening that they can knock on a door and that tether to hope will be there. They know this because they have been told by word, shown by deed, and cared for and cried with out of love. Hope is a very fragile thing. It cannot be truly lost but it can be well hidden. Gather the courage necessary to open yourself to the vulnerability of grief so that those who are in it can someday find their way out.
Why do these things happen? Because life can be cruel. It is up to the rest of us to help make life worth living again.